Working from home is easy – tackling a toxic work culture of presenteeism is harder to crack

In short, nobody is benefiting from the world of work as we know it

Rachael Revesz
Saturday 27 June 2020 12:59
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Sir David Attenborough talks working from home after coronavirus

During lockdown many people will have delighted in the novelty of working from home. No commute! Slightly better lunches! But as days have become months, the novelty may have worn off.

One Zoom call leaks into another. The light of your workplace instant messenger tool enters your dreams. It becomes apparent that, work-wise, the environment may have changed, but very little else has.

Presenteeism is not dead. Far from it: even without the commute or other travel, it is deeply engrained in our culture. And in a looming recession, many of us resort to presenteeism to illustrate how indispensable we are to our employers, whether we are freelancers, on a fixed-term contract or in a full-time job. We are home, but we remain in a seemingly toxic work culture that the glorified world of co-working and tech start-ups has done nothing to improve.

Presenteeism does nothing for gender equality either. A report from the London School of Economics, which investigated why so many professional women drop out of work to have children, discovered that “it is due partly, but significantly, to the fact that their partners’ working hours and workplace conditions are utterly incompatible with family life”. (So much for it being about women’s “lack of confidence” or a “natural calling” to be a home-maker.)

Since the 1970s or perhaps even before that, women have discussed the concept of whether we can have it all – a family and a career. (Long story short – it appears not, as charities like Pregnant Then Screwed so clearly highlight.) But what about men, who on average get 17.3 per cent higher pay and who do less housework and who still have children?

On the face of it, this set-up appears pretty cushy. But I don’t think it is. For every woman dropping out of work, there is often a man working such long hours they barely see their children awake during the week, as the LSE report found. This miserable situation would suggest no life outside of the office at all.

In short, nobody is benefiting from the world of work as we know it. I believe in many ways the virus has pushed us backwards, with the government dropping this year’s pay gap reporting requirements, and a recession that is likely to force employers to use fewer people to do the same amount of work. This spells disaster for work/life balance.

Combine that with the nagging perception that enjoying your life outside of work – I mean a good amount of time, not the ability to do a 10-minute Yoga with Adriene video in the evening – is a sign of a lack of ambition or desire to get ahead.

How can you be truly ambitious if you want to leave the office at 5.30pm, not work at weekends or take a lunchbreak? I will always remember my very first boss saying in my leaving speech that I “always took an hour for lunch”, as if it was some personal quirk I should be remembered for. From that moment, I wondered how career-driven I really was, as the desire to eat lunch has never gone away.

Over the years I’ve met corporate lawyers who make head-spinning pay packets but have no time to spend it. I have a friend who worked hard for years to pay for an MBA, only to enter into another high-pressured role to spend the next few years paying it off. Being all-consumed by work leaves little to no room in our lives to discover what’s important to us, to how we want to live or what makes us happy. More of us forge our identities through work, which leaves us vulnerable when we are furloughed or made redundant.

Now is a time to take stock, and many of us don’t like what we see. We know that many offices are doing phased returns, and some of us will be back to normal by the end of the year, whereas many more of us will continue to work from home.

Location will be irrelevant. Until the government and corporations wise up to this toxic situation we are all in, nothing at work will really change.

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